“Never open a book with weather”

"In the Rain", Sascha Kohlmann (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“In the Rain”, Sascha Kohlmann (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Every profession, hobby, and field of study has its share of lore, that is, its own body of unsubstantiated knowledge distributed by word-of-mouth and emails, often winding up in textbooks and reference material. Most “common knowledge” is lore. Everybody knows that Macs can’t get viruses—but they can get malware, and they do. Everybody knows that the French eat better than Americans—but watch the Parisians line up at McDo’s for their Quarter Pounders and pomme frittes. There’s even office lore, the shared knowledge of how to unjam the printer and get around that bug in Excel. The thing about lore is, even if it’s accurate, no one knows why. If it works, the lore is reinforced; if it doesn’t, the lore may still survive. Lore is superstition for a modern world that thinks it’s shaken off superstition.

Lore shared among fiction writers is the worst. These received chestnuts of “wisdom” that all writers must adhere to continue to go unchallenged, both individually and as a body. Why is that? Why are we as writers so beholden to a list of unproven, unsubstantiated do’s and don’t’s?

Inevitably this writing lore is attached to the name of some Big & Important Author. If Carver or Faulkner or Flaubert said it, it must be true—or, more significantly, it must be deep and thoughtful. Another reason for the bulletproof status of this lore is that their rules are regularly reprinted in definitive texts and repeated by other authoritative authors.

Lore replaces thought. Instead of considering each and every sentence in your story, examining word choice and sentiment and motivation, lore is a handy feather-stuffed cushion to fall backwards onto. Lore in writing becomes a shortcut in an art form that is all about decisions. Ignorance of lore is to risk ridicule from peers and scorn from editors. Defying lore is to take a risk. That’s why it’s passed around so earnestly in workshops, writing groups, and creative writing classes.

It doesn’t help when a reputable literary bastion collects and collates this body of lore into a central location, even using the long-sapped form of the Top Ten list to help the practitioners organize their thoughts. Now, not everything on these lists is lore—plenty of it is hard-learned personal wisdom—but inevitably someone (“Elmore Leonard” being that someone) invokes that tired hand-me-down: “Never open a book with weather.” I’ve heard it phrased so many different ways I’ve lost count (maybe I should make a Top Ten list), but every variation involves “never”, “open”, “book” (or “story”), and “weather”. (The Guardian cribbed his list from The New York Times, incidentally.)

Elmore Leonard isn’t so stupid as to pronounce this absolutism and move on. He offers a justification (“If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long”) and an exception (“If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want”). When you contemplate both of his exceptions, suddenly that “never” in “never open a book with weather” melts away like the warming Kilimanjaro snow.

Speaking of, this is what Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos:

Remember to get the weather in your god damned book—weather is very important.

Hemingway managed to open “A Very Short Story” with a mention of the weather:

One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town.

Here’s his rule-breaking opening to “In Another Country”:

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

Papa again, in “Cross-Country Snow”:

The funicular car bucked once more and then stopped. It could not go farther, the snow drifted solidly across the track. The gale scouring the exposed surface of the mountain had swept the snow surface into a wind-board crust.

I could go on. In fact, if you think of a story’s title as its true opening, Hemingway is even more guilty: “The Snows of Kilamanjaro”, “Cat in the Rain”, “After the Storm”, even perhaps The Sun Also Rises.

You might object that these openings are reflected in Leonard’s exceptions and provisos, but the lore of “never open a book with weather” that gets passed around somehow fails to mention any of them. Someone brings a story into a workshop that opens with rain drizzling onto a window pane and someone else pounces on the faux pas.

Worse, the lore of “never open a story with weather” is often misattributed to Hemingway, which is crazy: the man made a career and an unstoppable reputation based on writing about the outdoors. A writer of outdoors adventures would never respect “never open a story with the weather”—it’s like a mystery writer admonishing “never open a story with a murder.”

The prohibition against opening with weather is one more bit of lore designed to mystify and codify the craft. It bedazzles young writers who commit it to memory as the key to publication, and it offers easy ammunition to every hack who’s gone into a workshop oh-so-smug in the knowledge of why the story up for review is mortally flawed.

Twenty Writers: Yoshihiro Tatsumi in retrospect

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.


Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Tokyo, 2010. (Yasu. CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Last night I learned Japanese manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi had passed away at the age of 79. Revered as the grandfather of gekiga (a darker form of manga, akin to graphic novels or alternative comics here in the United States), Tatsumi was known in Japan for his urban, noirish comics featuring a gamut of characters, from gangsters and back alley hoods to college students and office workers. Only in the last ten years did he became well-known in the North America (and perhaps elsewhere) due to new translations of his work published yearly by Drawn & Quarterly and edited under the guiding hand of Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Shortcomings).

I don’t think I can express how much I enjoyed Tatsumi’s work or how his comics encouraged and shaped my own writing. I did not come to his work via manga (a form I honestly don’t know much about) but rather by accident while browsing the shelves at a local bookstore. The cover—a lone man in a raincoat receding down a seedy nighttime alleyway, his back to the viewer—led me to pick up The Push Man and Other Stories and read the first story, then the next, then the next. I promptly purchased the copy, returned home, and read the entire collection in one sitting. My only disappointment was that none of his other work was readily available in the U.S. at the time. (My novella Everywhere Man gets its name from Tatsumi’s Push Man, and takes a few other cues as well.)

It was remarkable, this voice from Japan whose stories respected their source culture while also digging up explosive emotional power directed at that same culture. Tatsumi’s minimalist style and quiet stories of “average” people are often compared to Raymond Carver, but they’re also deeply infused with American noir and crime fiction. Themes of sexual frustration and violence and emasculation are rampant in Push Man and elsewhere. His characters often seem like Japanese counterparts to Jim Thompson’s West Texas oilcatters and door-to-door salesmen: disposable men on the edge of breakdown or abandonment, with few choices other than to jump on the accelerator and push through their troubles rather than backpedal out of them. They rarely succeed. Tatsumi’s characters live in cramped rooms, cramped even by Japanese standards, usually only large enough for a futon and a hot plate. They sludge through dead-end jobs while watching from afar Japan’s miraculous economic boom of the 1960s and 70s. They aren’t preoccupied with death, they fear being erased. I have the idea these stories were intended for the same kind of audience Jim Thompson wrote for, young lonely men who felt shut-out from the American—or Japanese—Dream.

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

The Push Man and other stories (2005)

When recommending Tatsumi to friends, my trouble has always been what not to recommend. Of Drawn & Quarterly’s offerings, perhaps only the autobiographical A Drifting Life and Black Blizzard (penned when Tatsumi was 21 and the source of some embarrassment for him when reprinted) are reserved for Tatsumi completists. Otherwise the English editions we have available represent an impressive body of work which, as I understand it, remains an incomplete record of his full output.

In Push Man‘s stories, each limited to eight pages, Tatsumi deftly compresses grim situations down to their bare minimum and yet manages to leave himself the occasional panel for bleak panoramas of late-1960s Tokyo, its late-night bars and red light districts and walk-up ramen stands. The artwork is sometimes cartoony—even clunky—but the emotional force of his characters’ desolation carries through page after page. In later collections (Abandon the Old in Tokyo, Good-Bye, and Midnight Fishermen) the young men’s magazines Tatsumi was writing for opened up more pages for his work. His pen improves in these collections, trending toward photorealism and employing heavier use of shadow and contrast. These tightly-wound tales sometimes suffer from the breathing room four or eight additional pages allowed, but each collection stores more than a few gems.

A Drifting Life (2009)

A Drifting Life (2009)

Tatsumi’s autobiographical A Drifting Life is his most ambitious work translated to English, and perhaps his most ambitious work of all. Intense but careful to withhold the most personal details of his life from the reader, Tatsumi lays out his formative years and how he entered the manga field while in elementary school. Each stage of his life is a new round of jousting with manga as an art form, tackling a narrative outlet he found liberating and yet restrictive and overly commercial all the same. I wish more time was spent on the side story of the manga rental industry in postwar Japan and its power to create and demolish artistic reputations. Some of the editors and publishers Tatsumi fought with sound straight out of Hollywood’s star system, right down to the shoddy treatment writers on both sides of the Pacific endured to produce consumable work week after week.

Still jousting with the strictures of manga at the age of 74, Tatsumi published Fallen Words, eight “moral comedies” inspired by rakugo, a venerable form of Japanese performance where a seated speaker narrates a story with a fan and a cloth as props. Rakugo performers will often tell stories that have been repeated for over a hundred years; the art is in the retelling and voices and mannerisms and novel uses of the props themselves. Tatsumi took this verbal art form and produced visual versions that depicted them in their original Meiji- and Edo-era settings: “I attempted to take rakugo, where laughter is supreme, and to tell the stories in the visual language of gekiga,” an art form not known for its comedy. Some stories rely on twist endings that don’t quite work, some on puns that only makes sense to Japanese speakers, but the book as a whole demonstrates the kind of experimentation Tatsumi was willing to engage in right to the end of his career.

Fallen Words (2009)

Fallen Words (2009)

When I was a graduate student teaching undergraduates creative writing, I included one story from Push Man as required reading. “Make-Up” remains my personal favorite of his work. It involves a young office worker living with an older woman, a bar hostess. When she’s gone at night, the young man dons a kimono, applies her cosmetic, and takes to downtown Tokyo passing as a woman. Not only is it remarkable the ease with which Tatsumi tells this nuanced story (another woman falls in love with him as a woman), it’s also surprising the sensitivity and compassion he offers his main character without falling into bathos. Some of the students tripped up on the simple lines of Tatsumi’s pen, some had trouble with the quietness (entire pages lacking a line of dialogue), but many gripped that something interesting and surprising was going on, right up to the ambiguous ending that opens up rather than shuts down the story.

Tatsumi’s work is often criticized as heavy-handed, cliched, and moralizing, which is arguable for his earlier output (such as Push Man) but is not so easily asserted with Drifting Life or Fallen Words. My response is to look at the boldness of the subject matter, the narrative distillation of complicated situations converted to deceptively simple panels on the page, and his early mastery of story structure. Each page of “Make-Up” is a self-contained scene, as perfect as a zen koan. It’s harder than it looks. That’s what I think Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s detractors are missing. This was not a natural talent who slipped into the form with ease, but one who struggled with it and attacked its firmaments, sometimes with mediocrity, sometimes brilliantly, but always thinking of his next push forward.

More on Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s passing: Adrian Tomine, Paul Gravett, Bleeding Cool.

Rangaku, sakoku, and the Japanese cargo cult

A quote I came across while reading William Gibson’s Distrust That Particular Flavor, a collection of his essays and assorted nonfiction:

In 1854, with Commodore Perry’s second landing, gunboat diplomacy ended two hundred years of self-imposed isolation, a deliberate stretching out of the feudal dream-time. The Japanese knew that America, not to be denied, had come knocking with the future in its hip pocket. This was the quintessential cargo-cult moment for Japan: the arrival of alien tech…

Imagine the Roswell Incident as a trade mission, a successful one; imagine us buying all the Gray technology we could afford, no reverse engineering required. This was a cargo cult where the cargo actually did what it claimed to do. [Emphasis added.]

The book is filled with these spot-on observations and analogies, and it’s this intellectual microscope that propels William Gibson’s best fiction. Gibson connects technology as a cold untapped force with characters’ desires and failings. He understands that even the dullest human can become quite creative, even powerful, when a sufficiently complex piece of technology is at their disposal.

Distrust The Particular Flavor by William GibsonAnd certainly Gibson can write about the Japanese as well as any Westerner I’ve read. Neuromancer is practically a love letter to the Japanese circa 1983, their love of tech and costume and salaryman formalities framed within a culture that mindfully guards its feudal past. Who am I to question Gibson—he’s written more about Japan, and the Japan we otherwise would not have heard about, than any other Western fiction writer in the past forty years. But there’s an important proviso to his comparison of Japan emerging from its self-imposed shell and the plight of the South Pacific cargo cults.

When Commodore Perry forced Japan to open its doors, the country was not caught unaware by a flood of new technology and culture that poured in. In fact, the Japanese knew a lot more about the goings-on of the outside world than you might expect. The Japanese were doing what they could to keep up with Western technology and systems over those two hundred years of isolation, and doing it much better than other open countries in Asia and elsewhere who were suffering under the boot of European colonialism.

There’s two key words here. The first is sakoku, which Wikipedia translates as “locked country” (but I’ve also heard translated as “curtain”, as in “Iron Curtain”). Sakoku is the term aggregating a bundle of decrees and policies that led to Japan’s isolation. Unfortunately, “isolated country” suggests a backwards nation, no matter how politically correct you attempt to be; consider our common attitudes toward North Korea, which is currently going through its own sakoku. Now imagine North Korea as a world power and economic powerhouse twenty years from now. Sounds far-fetched, but it’s already happened once, and in a country not far off their coast.

Japan's first treatise on anatomy, copied from Western sources in 1774. (Wikipedia)

Japan’s first treatise on anatomy, copied from Western sources in 1774. (Wikipedia)

What’s less known outside of Japan (and even among the Japanese I’ve spoken with) is rangaku. The suffix -gaku means learning, while ran comes from Oranda, the Japanese pronunciation of “Holland”. Rangaku is the body of Western knowledge accumulated by the Japanese (via the Dutch) during sakoku.

The Japanese acquired rangaku two ways. They obtained it directly from the Dutch, the only Western traders allowed into Japan during sakoku, once the Portuguese and their meddling monks were banned. The Japanese also sent their best and brightest to Holland’s universities. That was the deal the Japanese emperor and shogunate cut with the Dutch: we’ll open one port to you (Nagasaki), and in return you give us access to your books and technology, as well as let our hand-picked students attend your universities. The Dutch probably thought they were getting the better end of this deal, right up to the 1930s.

A 1774 Japanese book, "Sayings of the Dutch", with a drawing of a microscope. (Wikipedia)

A 1774 Japanese book, “Sayings of the Dutch”, with a drawing of a microscope. (Wikipedia)

Through this lens, the Japanese no longer come off like hard-nosed traditionalists desperate to hold the clock hands of progress still. Rangaku is one of many explanations for how Japan emerged from its isolation and modernized in twenty-five years with remarkably little culture shock. The Japanese intelligentsia did not gape at the first steam locomotive, they’d already seen diagrams of it and were conversant with the principles that made it move. The Japanese even adopted a compulsory grade school education in the 1870s, forty years before the United States. Think how quickly our culture has adopted to the rise of the Internet and the rapid changes it’s bringing. That’s nothing compared to the Meiji-era Japanese transitioning from feudalism to modernity in one pre-planned, foreordained leap.

But it’s also easy to take the wonderment too far, to admire the Japanese for integrating the cargo perfectly and fluidly into their feudal culture. In a recent collection of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories, Haruki Murakami offers an oblique rebuttal to Gibson’s observation of the Japanese “buying all the Gray technology” they could afford. In the introduction, Murakami notes Akutagawa was

a child of the modern age. Western civilization and Western-style education were already things that could be taken for granted. … He wore Western suits, smoked cigars, drank coffee, ate beef, conversed now and then with foreigners, and appreciated opera. Such a Westernized lifestyle was, for him, entirely natural and entirely comfortable.

Rashomon by Ryunosuke AkutagawaIn other words, Akutagawa was accustomed to a way of life similar to the moveable feast the bohemian American ex-pats enjoyed after the First World War in Paris. It’s remarkable to me that such a writer would set modernistic and relativistic stories like “In the Grove” and “Rashomon” (and others) in feudal Japan. (Imagine Fitzgerald writing a Revolutionary War novel, or Hemingway writing a story about the Salem Witch Trials.) As a backdrop to Akutagawa’s stories, Feudal Japan appears to be constructed of the hard timber of clear-cut morality, duty, and honor—much like the mythologized Old West—and not the shaky plastic of “Rashomon”‘s moral and subjective ambiguities. Of course, perhaps that was Akutagawa’s point.

Murakami then speaks almost directly to Gibson. He notes that in Akutagawa’s adulthood

the most basic aspects of the life of the Japanese were still being governed by the old indigenous culture. … The Meiji government openly promoted a policy supporting precisely such a bifurcation, as represented by the slogan “Japanese spirit, Western technology”. They wanted to incorporate the technological progressiveness and efficiency of Western systems, but they also wanted the people to remain good, submissive Confucianists. … To some degree, the dregs of feudalism were left in place intentionally. [Emphasis added.]

In Europe, the leap from feudalism to modernism required a nasty and brutish slog through the Industrial Age and its factory child labor, black lung disease, and Marxist pot-stirring. Japan neatly sidestepped all that, cultivating the nineteenth century’s benefits, discarding its detritus, and in the process preserving the kind of feudal values that had been discarded as quaint and old-fashioned by Americans and Europeans. (For one example, see Mark Twain’s 1895 attack on Romanticism in “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses”.) Unfortunately Fascism loomed in Japan’s future, just as it did for the nations who’d persevered through the Industrial Age.

For better or worse, today we’ve implicitly agreed on a sink-or-swim policy for people to adjust to the Information Age we’re currently embroiled in. My grandmother still uses a corded phone and only recently installed cable television—but no Internet service, and she never will. There was no government edict for her to catch up with the Web, no compulsory service requiring her to join Twitter and enroll in Facebook. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Japanese explicitly decided on a negotiated course for their people, a compulsory upgrade of their society from Feudalism 1.0 to Modernity 2.0.